Larry Crowe  /  AP
Aaron Loukes, left, a gym teacher at Lin-Wood Elementary School in Lincoln, New Hampshire, holds a first grade class outside and on snowshoes.
updated 2/21/2006 2:53:07 AM ET 2006-02-21T07:53:07

Consider it winter warfare in the battle against childhood obesity.

A growing number of schools in the Northeast are retooling their phys-ed programs to add snowshoeing, an enticement to the video game generation to get outside and make the most of the region’s long, cold winters.

“I hate to say we’re in a crisis, but we are,” Aaron Loukes, a gym teacher at Lin-Wood Elementary School in Lincoln, N.H., said recently while leading 13 first-graders on a snowshoe trek through woods near the school. “We need to get people moving.”

For much of the year, that’s not so easy. The Northeast is home to most of the nation’s roughly 500 school snowshoe programs, many of which sprang up over the past five years as childhood obesity has become a concern. Here, winter can mean months of fitness-quashing frigid temperatures and snow — and endless hours in front of the tube.

But a loose coalition of educators, public health officials and snowshoe manufacturers hopes to change that with curricula and grants to train and equip teachers and students to embrace this seasonal fitness opportunity.

Snowshoes certainly aren’t the only winter option, but for many schools they may be the most practical. Skis can cost a fortune and require regular upkeep. Learning to ski can be tricky and time-consuming — tough to do when the typical gym class lasts 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, outfitting a class of 30 with snowshoes runs around $1,200. Maintenance mostly is a matter of keeping them clean. And the learning curve?

“It looks complex, but the reality is it’s just walking,” says Kathy Murphy, general manager of Vermont-based Tubbs Snowshoe Co., which helps schools get equipment and training. “They are able to master the sport in just minutes.”

Classroom equalizer
Modern snowshoes are lightweight oblong frames covered with mesh or other material and are strapped to the bottoms of regular boots or shoes. The shoe broadens the surface area of the foot, allowing the user to walk more easily through snow.

Though snowshoes date back 6,000 years, only recently have they attracted attention as a recreational sport. Ski areas now offer lessons, rentals and trails. In 2004, some 4.7 million Americans went snowshoeing, according to the Outdoor Industry Foundation.

The benefits are impressive. Snowshoeing — even at an easy walking pace — can burn up to 1,000 calories an hour.

“The reality is students can’t do PE every day,” Loukes said as he led his students up a snowy hill. “But they could do this as part of their day. Twenty minutes between classes would do it.”

Schools also report advantages beyond gym class. Some science teachers have led students on wildlife walks. And in Vermont, grants are available to buy snowshoes for teachers — an insurance industry effort to improve the health of adults in the schools.

In New Hampshire, seven elementary schools recently got $5,000 grants to start programs. Loukes spent about a fifth of his on shoes for his students; the remainder will be used to create several miles of wooded trails on school property.

Like Tubbs and several other groups, McLean, Va.-based SnowSports Industries America helps bring the sport to schools, mainly via its Web site www.winterfeelsgood.com, which offers grant information and a sample curriculum.

But the winter sports industry group says the real key is reaching the next generation of phys-ed teachers. The group has partnered with nearby George Mason University, which added snowshoeing to its curriculum for students who plan to teach physical education.

It may be some time before students can get varsity letters in snowshoeing, but the sport is growing — even in the South.

Jeannie Trautman, a phys-ed teacher at Great Falls Elementary School in Great Falls, Va., has taught snowshoeing for two years. And she hasn’t been deterred by the lack of snow.

“We snowshoe right on the dirt, on the grass,” she says. “Right now they (the students) don’t know any better.”

Trautman says snowshoeing’s ease makes it a great classroom equalizer since children can take part whether or not they are athletes. “It really gives the kids who are disadvantaged by weight the feeling that they are as good as everyone else.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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